Forbes released their list of the most influential athletes a few days ago and to my surprise, Jimmie Johnson topped the list. Johnson, a NASCAR athlete, along with two others from the sport, made the list: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Admittedly, I’m quite shocked to see so many NASCAR drivers in the top 10. Truth be told, I’m not one who follows NASCAR, but I understand that it has quite a following. Given the parameters of the survey, I would have assumed athletes from the big 4 would have filled the list. As I read the article, it was easier to understand why the lack of big 4 athletes was the case.
The author explains that the list only includes active athletes (so the likes of Lance Armstrong and other Winter Olympics athletes like Apolo Anton Ohno and Shaun White) have fallen off of the list. More than that, with the decline of Tiger Woods and no singular identifiable face of Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League, the picture of more NASCAR athletes seems to make sense. Another reason cited by the article is the potential or (in-progress) labor strifes, which understandably, would limit the viewership of certain athletes. Although, I’m still surprised by the total make-up of the list. There were three NASCAR drivers that I already mentioned, four NFL athletes (Tom Brady, Troy Polamalu, Peyton Manning, and Tim Tebow), two NBA players (Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James), and one Olympic Athlete (Michael Phelps).
At first blush, Shaq isn’t someone I would expect to see in the top 10, especially so late in his career, but then when I go and look at some of the things that he has done off the court (music, acting, TV, etc.) I’m reminded that he has quite a lot of exposure. Another athlete that surprised me was Troy Polamalu, but I suppose those hair commercials have really escalated him to a household name. I wouldn’t expect Tim Tebow to be on this list, but I guess with his Christian following, that can also be explained.
The most important takeaway from this article for me is the potential for these athletes to really make a difference in the lives of people. Most athletes do some form of philanthropy and I think that’s great! With the influential power that the athletes from this list have, I think it’d be pretty cool if one of them decided to do something on the Angelina Jolie level. She was quoted in a 2006 Forbes article as saying, “As much as I would love to never have to visit Washington, that’s the way to move the ball.” Maybe it’s a little too much to ask athletes to put time and energy into “moving the ball” in Washington.
I understand, from my own brief stint as an NCAA athlete, that to be a professional athlete takes a lot of hard work. Many fans think that athletes just play the game and collect their paycheck. There are hours and hours of work that go into strength & conditioning, not to mention the hours and hours (10,000+ hours?) of work that go into perfecting one’s skills at their given sport. I’m not saying they deserve the money they get for what they do, but I’m also not saying that they don’t deserve that money, either.
Most importantly, I want to make a difference in the world. A very positive and noticeable difference in the world. So, when I see a list like this that come out identifying influential athletes, I can’t help but vicariously live through one of them and imagine the enormous good that I could create.
Note: I couldn’t find a way to access the dataset compiled by E-Poll and Nielsen Media Research that help to populate this list (if you can, please post it in the comments), but it seems to me that they only interviewed American adults. I would say that this contributes to there being very little international flavor on the list with the likes Sidney Crosby, David Beckham (or even a famous cricket player like Sachin Tendulkar).